The Donald Durham Company was incorporated in 1924. Mr. Durham had designed a device for applying floor wax and polishing floors. After receiving a patent, he set about promoting and selling his invention. He was living in California at the time and relocated his business to Des Moines, Iowa, because it was centrally located and distribution of his products would be simpler, faster, and cheaper. The waxers, of course, required a specially formulated wax, and the company was happy to provide that too.
Mr. Durham advertised for sales representatives to sell door to door, as was the custom in the 1920s.
The waxers worked well and proved quite popular. The wax formulas were of the highest quality, and the entire package proudly displayed the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” It was endorsed by the Boston School of Interior Decoration as well.
The company’s product line kept expanding as other wax blends, including dance floor wax, were added. In 1932, Durham purchased the formula for a product known as “water putty” from an entrepreneur in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The first sales of DURHAM’S ROCK HARD Water Putty® took place in October of 1932. In the beginning, the factory machinery was very primitive. A converted sausage-grinding machine was used to blend the raw materials, and the cans were packaged by hand using a spoon and a hand scale. Salesmen would fill up their cars with cases of water putty and head out – stopping at hardware stores and distribution centers along the way and coming back to Des Moines only when their cars were empty!
It didn’t take long for the public to discover that the product was great. It did just what it said it would do and took care of a lot of different repair needs. The sales staff (both of them) attended trade shows, pushed, prodded, and persuaded until by the mid 1940s, DURHAM’S ROCK HARD Water Putty was on the shelves of the leading hardware and paint retailers throughout the United States: Ace, True Value, Golden Rule, Sherwin-Williams, and most of the “Mom and Pop” hardware stores.
Even though the company was founded just before the great depression struck, it was able to survive those hard times. World War II had a different effect on the business. The iron necessary for producing the floor waxers was no longer available. The solvents needed to process the Brazilian Carnauba waxes could not be spared for “civilian” uses; however, that didn’t make much difference since the wax was nearly impossible to obtain! The floor wax business pretty much died out during the war years. Water putty, meanwhile, used materials not so highly in demand, and production was able to continue sparing the business from total collapse.
The end of World War II brought about a thirst for the good life. Returning soldiers needed housing and construction boomed. So, too, did water putty sales. DURHAM’S began to appear in “do-it-yourself” books and columns and was shown prominently in the 1954 edition of the Better Homes and Gardens Home Repair Guide. It was the answer to a myriad of home repair problems and gained great respect in the marketplace.
Water putty sales continued to increase, and through careful management (a lesson learned during the great depression) the company thrived. The design of the water putty cans has remained consistent, and the cans are immediately recognizable to our long-time users!
In the last decades of the 20th century, the hardware business changed dramatically. The small corner hardware store was replaced by the larger chain stores, and the big home center retailers became the moving force in the industry. DURHAM’S ROCK HARD Water Putty was right there on the shelf with them, and today it is sold by many of the home center retailers as well as by your neighborhood hardware stores.
No mention of the history of the company would be complete without mention of the longevity of the loyal employees of the Donald Durham Company. Mr. Durham served as founder and president for 40 years. Bob Roberts was here for 46 years, serving as plant manager, sales manager, and president. Robert Van Horne mixed putty and ran a packaging machine for 47 years. Marion Fowler ascended from bookkeeper to president during her 62 years of service, and Betty Fowler served in capacities from clerical positions to president during her 58 years with the company. Current management has only been around for about 30 years making them relative newcomers! DURHAM’S ROCK HARD Water Putty sticks and stays put! It seems to have the same effect on those who work with it!
Most of all, no one has contributed more to the longevity of the company than our loyal customers. When selecting a repair material, they want one that they know will work. They’ve trusted DURHAM’S ROCK HARD Water Putty for 80 years and continue to insist on it by name. We would be nothing without YOU! Thanks for being a part of our history. Return to top.